But university was also praised for culture of open discussion
Trinity College Dublin has come in for criticism in a review carried out for the higher education standards watchdog.
Governance and management structures in the 430-year-old university are among areas needing improvement, according to a report for Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI).
Despite certain concerns, the independent experts who conducted the review said it was “an exciting time to be at Trinity”. The report commended the university on a number of fronts including its leadership in attracting research funding, its culture of open discussion and “significant achievements” in enhancing the student experience.
The review is part of a QQI cycle, known as Cinnte, which is evaluating the effectiveness of the quality assurance procedures of each higher education institution.
It was carried out by an international panel of six experts and peers, who engaged with staff, students and other stakeholders in Trinity over several days last March.
Much of the report deals with governance and, while commending the high value placed on participation and consensus in decision-making, it said there was a tension between that and an “ineffectiveness in progressing issues of importance.”
It describes the governance structures as “complex”. They involve a board and academic council that are dominated by representatives of a “cascade” of internal committees.
The panel expressed concern about a lack of understanding of the role and function of the board, a lack of focus on strategic issues, insufficient levels of external representation and gaps in specialised expertise in the board’s make-up.
The principle of broad participation and representative governance was explained to the review team as “part of the DNA of Trinity”.
They noted “no consistent view was discernible as to whether the board members served primarily to represent the interests of their various constituencies, or to contribute experience and expertise to strategic decision-making and oversight [as would be expected]”.
They cautioned that the emphasis placed by staff and students on the representation of constituencies at board level, along with other issues, were a “significant threat to the governance of quality assurance”.
The report’s recommendations include formal improvements to current structures to devolve certain decision-making, while the board and council focus on matters or strategy, principle and policy,
The report also highlights inconsistencies in communication of policies around the university and makes a number of recommendations to ensure that policies were understood by students and staff.
According to the panel, many of those they interviewed were not aware of core academic policies. They said that an emphasis on oral communication rather than more formal communication presented problems in the management and compliance of policies.
On staffing issues, concerns expressed by the panel include a “lack of transparency in the promotion process”.
There are several recommendations aimed at improving the student experience. Among the issues raised was how students who experience hardship and take time off are cut off from access to learning materials and college support structures.
Professor Elmer Sterken of the University of Groningen, who chaired the panel, described Trinity as an outstanding international comprehensive research-driven university.
He said “as critical friends, the members of the review panel wish that TCD finds our report supportive and constructive to take the next steps on its road to future success”.
QQI CEO Dr Padraig Walsh said there was much for Trinity to be proud of and “we look forward to working with its staff on implementing the recommendations of the panel”.
Trinity Provost Dr Linda Doyle said they had “ambitious plans for the future”.
She noted that the panel found that Trinity’s quality assurance procedures “constitute a robust integrated system that addresses the learning experience of students and notably covers teaching and assessment”.